“Gender Differences”

In Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling ends with an interesting look at gender systems.  In the last chapter, she focuses on the way society shapes gender.  She says, “Gender, then, is never merely individual, but involves interactions between small groups of people.  Gender involves institutional rules” (244).  Here, Fausto-Sterling gets at the point that I feel sums up my personal beliefs about sex and gender.  Neither sex or gender are fixed permanently, but society goes to great lengths to ensure that people act according to certain gender norms.

When discussing the role of social construction and the concept of doing gender, Judith Lorber says, “Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of the social life” (142).  This is evident in the fact that gender roles are not cross-cultural or consistent throughout history.  Compare the women of hunter and gather societies to (the majority of) American women in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The first group was very independent and the family relied on them to locate the majority of their food.  Although the men were in charge of finding meat, the family could not have survived without the grains, nuts, etc. that the women collected.  They were literally the “breadwinners” of their households.  The latter example is of housewives that did not enter the workforce.  Their many role was to care for the children and the home.  During this time period, it was uncommon for women to enter the workforce; instead, the husband was supposed to be the family breadwinner.  These examples show how different women ere on an individual level and also collectively.  Men and women may seem like homogenous groups but that is simply because there is a common method of socialization, which leads to common behaviors and experiences.

David Reimer as a child

David Reimer as an adult

Each experience we have alters the way we behave or think, regardless of how meaningless that moment may seem.  In a psychology course that I took last semester, I learned that many people believe that a person’s personality is constantly changing and is a learned process.  I feel that this also applies to gender.  The behavioral approach to psychology attributes gender differences to social learning processes such as reinforcement and modeling.  The idea behind this theory is that the people that play a key role in the child’s life (parents, teachers, friends) will help shape their personality and teach them what is considered gender appropriate.  Of course, this matches their sex.

However, the idea that you can make someone act a certain way because of their sex is not true. Recently, parents have been given the ability to reassign their child’s sex if their genitalia are ambiguous (as I discussed in my last post).  Take David Reimer for example.  His parents reassigned his sex to female after a botched circumcision.  Growing up, David did not feel like he was a male and was never able to accept his given identity.  Eventually, he killed himself.  This brings up a very important point.  Society places a great amount of pressure on individuals to fit in with a specific group..  Forcing people into categories is beneficial for institutions, but detrimental for individuals.  These concepts are fluid and change over time; rather than assigning these labels, we should recognize the importance of a continuum.  This applies to gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  As time changes, people change.  This should be looked upon positively by society as a sign of maturation and growth, not as something to be ashamed of or uncomfortable with.

Another problem with gender norms is that females are associated with one image of femininity and males are associated with one image of masculinity. Men are considered aggressive, dominant, superior, and tough.  They are supposed to provide for and protect their families.  Women, on the other hand, are subservient.  They are considered emotional, weak, vulnerable, and sensitive.  They are also said to have a maternal instinct which makes them nurturing and caring.  There are also gendered ideas about sexuality, which excuse male promiscuity but shame female sexuality.  Although many people support these ideas, I must disagree.

The idea of innate gender differences is disempowering for both men and women.  As Michael Kimmel discusses in The Gendered Society, there are more differences among men and among women than between men and women.  Here, Kimmel is explaining that men and women are not different from each other on a collective level, but on an individual level.  Each person has their own personality characteristics and behaviors, but not because of their gender identity.  These differences arise from nurture rather than nature.  Throughout the entire book, Fausto-Sterling refers back to the debate about nature and nurture.  I feel that nature is perceived as so important because it gives society the basis for their nurturing.  If we did not stress the idea that sex and gender should match, the role of nature would be much less important.  I wonder if it would be important at all.  However, in our current society, nature plays a crucial role in the formation of sexual and gender identity.  When parents raise a child, they (generally) socialize them to behave in a gender appropriate fashion which corresponds with their biological sex.  Some examples include clothing styles and nurseries for infants.  Because a baby’s gender may not be instantly identifiable, others can rely on other things to make the distinction, such as their stroller or clothing.  Due to advancements in health technology, parents can find out the sex of their child before giving birth.  If gendering were not so important, why would this procedure be so popular?  (Of course, in certain countries, a fetus is aborted because simply because it is female.)

We are not told if this child is male or female, but the pink blanket makes the distinction.

Ideas about gender differences are especially problematic when they become the basis for the development of societal institutions.  For example, the workplace often reinforces these ideas.  Because of these traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity, it is assumed that one person is better fit for a certain job because of their gender.  Positions in nursing and elementary schooling are dominated by women, whereas CEO”s and engineers are mostly male.  When a male enters a field usually reserved for women, he rides the “glass escalator;”  however, a woman in a male dominated field often hits the “glass ceiling.”  This is to say that men are capable of doing all jobs, whereas women should stick to jobs that allow them to express their nurturing and motherly characteristics.  However, in both situations, men and women are pressured to remain in their domain.  Men in low-rank positions are encouraged to move upward on the career hierarchy, whereas women are encouraged to do the opposite.  Often times, as seen here, gender differences are used to justify unfair and unequal treatment of men and women.  I feel that above all, this is the biggest problem with the idea of so-called gender differences.  These “differences” are not embraced, but used to widen the gender gap and allow sexism to go by unnoticed.

Gender norms eliminate individuality and force people into boxes that may or may not suit them.  This is also disempowering because it limits opportunity (in the workplace, the classroom, etc).  Also, these notions about sex and gender are disempowering because they limit female sexual agency.  If and when a woman becomes sexually active, there are many social stigmas around it, but men are free to do as they please.  Overall, sex and gender cannot be understood as rigid concepts.  There needs to be room for ambiguity, change, and personal development.  Unfortunately, socialization and cultural forces lead us to believe that certain behavior is inappropriate because of our gender.  Ultimately, this widens the gender gap and individuality is lost to the gendered world.

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